There are pockets of Rochester where less than 60% of the population has broadband Internet access available at home, according to research from Arizona State University’s Center for Policy Informatics, making it one of the worst-ranking cities in the nation.
The lack of home online access is even more pronounced than in major struggling cities like Detroit, where the New York Times recently investigated the crucial links between employment, economic recovery, and simple broadband access.
“It’s like fighting without a sword,” Deborah Fisher, a Detroit social services coordinator, told the Times. “Broadband access is a challenge and a major factor in economic opportunity and employment here.”
While Rochester’s 5% unemployment rate is not as severe as Detroit’s 11%, the far-reaching consequences of the digital divide — which involves access to both Internet and computers as well as digital literacy — can have significant repercussions for impoverished and under-served communities in particular.
The Pew Research Center maintains that 13% of Americans only have Internet access through their smartphones, which typically have a lifespan of just two years. These smartphone-dependent populations tend to be disproportionately African-American or Latino, and almost always earn less than $30,000 per year.
The Catch-22 of better employment and Internet access is profound. In order to find jobs, seekers typically require Internet access on a computer to submit resumes or fill out applications. But job-seekers also need to have enough income in the first place to afford computers and a broadband Internet connection.
The gaps in Rochester and throughout the upstate region have not gone unnoticed. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission granted $168 million of Connect America Fund money to broadband expansion in New York State.
Senator Chuck Schumer said he hoped to concentrate that money upstate. “There are hundreds of communities across upstate that still don’t have basic access to broadband Internet. It’s even hard to assess how much of a hindrance lack of high-speed Internet is to these communities,” he said.
The FCC declared broadband Internet a public utility last year, putting it on par with electricity and water access.
“The Internet has now gone from a novelty to a luxury to a necessity,” Schumer said. “Everyone relies on it. We need to do our jobs, to study, to communicate. To do nearly everything. So that means reliable high-speed Internet is absolutely essential.”